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Social Media and Freedom of Speech: Why #JeSuisCharlie

The debate around freedom of speech has now become a fundamental issue when it comes to our online communication.

Even when the cries of "Je suis Charlie" have stopped and the ink has faded on the countless reams of newspaper analysis, the moral question of how far we are willing to defend free speech will remain one with no definitive answer. This debate is one that cuts through society right here in the UK, in particular for my generation who come into contact with the good, the bad and the ugly of free speech everyday on social media.

Firstly, I am not going to try and draw comparisons between the offence caused by depicting the Prophet Muhammad and that caused from a Twitter spat about Question Time. However the debate around freedom of speech has now become a fundamental issue when it comes to our online communication.

It was reported that the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie became one of the biggest trending conversation topics in the history of Twitter, with people across the world defending the right of expression, no less than 6,500 times a minute in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. This was a mass proclamation of solidarity with a magazine that can be argued to have pushed the limits of such freedoms to the extreme; one example being the depiction of the French Justice Minister as a monkey back in 2008.

The irony was that this outcry was taking place on a platform that can land you in serious hot water should you wish to test the limits of your freedom to tweet about what you like. Look at the public outcry over comments made by the recent Channel 5 definition of celebrity, Katie Hopkins after her 'Ebola bombs' and 'jocksville' tweets. This saw 11,000 people sign a petition calling for her to be charged by the police on grounds her comments were "racist". Or the witch hunt that emerged after a series of offensive tweets made by 17 year old youth advisor to the Police and Crime Commissioner in Kent were splashed across the newspapers for weeks on end.

It's not only these more high profile incidents that provide us with discussion points, but for many of us on Twitter or Facebook, we are exposed to a whole world of different ideas and opinions which many of us find downright offensive. I recall my shock upon seeing some of my Facebook friends liking the page of the BNP and other racist groups. I would not deny that my opinion on said individuals did change, however would I demand site owners close these pages? Absolutely not.

Some may question the validity of the placing a connection between the right to speak freely on social media has nothing in common with what the Charlie Hebdo magazine stands for, and yes there are two very different platforms. Yet for my generation; our Facebook pages, our Twitter feeds and our Instagram streams are our source of news, our magazines and our forums for entertainment. Everyday young people are exposed to different ideas, some great and some very nasty, but isn't this exactly what must lie within the heart of a free and open society?

Suggesting that people should automatically be hunted for not adhering to the Guardianista liberal coffeehouse niceties of Twitter, flies in the face of the core values of free speech. Censorship and heavy-handed regulation is not how we create a more tolerant society; it's through challenging the very ideas that we believe to be wrong.

I do not proclaim to be Charlie because I agree with their racist cartoons. I am Charlie because I believe in the right for people to express themselves and importantly, for those ideas to be rightly challenged in a tolerant manner, free from violence.

So to the millions of people who wrote #JeSuisCharlie : next time you splutter or are shocked over a comment online, will you stand up for free speech like Charlie?

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